Learn a little about the history of the Kettblell and the most effective exercises for using it.
A kettlebell is an amazing tool for fitness, weight loss, and general health. There is a growing body of research showing that it is an exceptionally efficient tool for building dynamic strength, muscle, and many types of endurance, as well as for generating fat loss.
A kettlebell is a cast iron or steel ball with a handle, a little like a cannonball with a handle. It is a compact, inexpensive, virtually indestructible gym that can be used anywhere.
Kettlebells as we know them today date back to the 18th Century in Russia. They were originally used to weigh crops, and then circus strongmen started using them to demonstrate feats of strength. In the late 19th Century they began becoming more mainstream, and were used for recreational and strength athletics in Russia. In 1885 it became its own sport as part of the “Circle for Amateur Athletics.” (1)
Now kettlebells can be found in most gyms. But despite their growing popularity, many people still do not know how to use them properly. While certain systems incorporate them with other tools (such as sport conditioning or crossfit) there are many systems built around the kettlebell itself.
A few of the more well known ones are the IKFF (International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation), the IKSFA (International Kettlebell Sports Fitness Academy), the RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge) and StrongFirst. (2)
I personally teach (and am a certified Instructor) of the StrongFirst system. I chose the StrongFirst system for a few reasons, in particular for the standard of excellence required for instructors, along with the principles of the system. This system originally evolved in the 1980s to supplement the training of military special forces in the Soviet Union.
One of the standards for StrongFirst Instructors is known as “The Snatch Test.” The snatch is a movement that involves swinging the kettlebell from behind your hips to over your head in one fluid movement. For the test, performing a snatch swinging a 24 kg (53 lb) kettlebell 100 times in 5 minutes is required. For women that standard is adjusted to using a 16kg (35 lb) kettlebell, for the same number of repetitions and length of time. The test is judged to ensure you meet the technique standards. Not surprisingly, given the difficulty, there is a very high failure rate, generally around 25-30%.
There are Seven Principles of the StrongFirst system:
An in-depth explanation of all the principles is beyond the scope of this article, but you can read more at StrongFirst.com.
What do you do with a kettlebell?
If you check the Wikipedia page for “kettlebell,” you will find over 50 exercises that you can do with a kettlebell, and this is actually an incomplete list.
But to get 99% of the benefits from working out with kettlebells you only need two exercises: the Kettlebell Swing and the Turkish Get Up.
The Swing is the foundation of kettlebell training. It is the center of the kettlebell universe.
In fact if you look at a list of kettlebell exercises, almost all of them are really just variations of the kettlebell swing. Two that deserve particular mention are the Clean and the Snatch.
The Swing is a powerful hip movement that will use almost every muscle on your body.
A Swing is an explosive hip hinge movement. A hip hinge is the most powerful movement a human can do. (4) A hip hinge involves driving the hips back, bending the knees (as a secondary action), and keeping your spine safe and stable with your core. A hip hinge should not be confused with a squat.
The difference between a hip hinge and a squat is that in a squat the knees and hips flex to a similar degree on the way down. In the hinge the hips do much more flexion than the knees. But in both the spine must be safe and stable.
To finish a hip hinge you need to return to standing. This is done by driving the feet into the floor which will bring the hips forward back to a strong standing position.
The way a kettlebell swing works is thus: You place a kettlebell in front of you on the ground. Then you find a strong hinge position. Next “hike" the kettlebell behind you hips. At the exact moment the kettlebell is behind your hips drive your feet into the floor to stand back up. The force of your hips driving forward will “launch” the kettlebell in front of you where it will swing up to your chest level because it is connected to your arms. Gravity will cause the bell to swing back and you will “hike” it back to the position behind your hips. Then you can either drive your feet into the floor to drive the bell up for another rep, or let it swing in front of you and park it to finish the set.
To really understand the movement you need to see it and feel it. Seeing it is a good first step. Watch an excellent demo HERE.
To feel it you need to do it. You have 3 options, but only two of them are good. 1. Go see a qualified instructor to teach you. 2. Teach yourself and 3. Just start doing it (not recommended!!!).
You can find a listing of StrongFirst Instructors on their website HERE.
If you want to teach yourself I recommend starting with the book Simple and Sinister by Pavel Tsatsouline. It will walk you through how to do the movement properly.
If you just want to do it, you should rethink your decision.
The Turkish Get Up
If you only do one exercise the entire rest of you life, it should be the Turkish Get Up.
The Turkish Get Up (TGU) will increase total body strength, increase coordination, improve balance, promote spatial awareness, and increase your flexibility - just to name a few of its benefits.
For a complete article on the benefits of the Turkish Get Up I recommend you read THIS article from StrongFirst.
TGUs involve getting on the floor (which itself has many longterm health benefits), then standing up with the kettlebell held over your head, and of course safely returning yourself (and the kettlebell) to the floor.
But you don’t just do it however you get it done. People have been practicing and studying this exercise for over 200 years (5) and have found the right way to do. By right I mean the way that is the safest and promotes all those benefits I listed earlier.
The correct steps are as follows: Get on the ground next to a kettlebell. Press it towards the sky, roll onto your elbow. Transition from your elbow to your hand. Sweep your hips underneath your body, into a position I call the “windmill”. Raise your torso on top of your hips. Find a strong lunge position. Stand up. At which point you are exactly halfway done, now you simply reverse the steps to get back to the ground.
Just like the Swing, you need to see it and do it to really understand. Check out a demonstration HERE.
The two most common ways we progress with the TGU are challenging people’s control and their strength. We always challenge control first for safety reasons, which is why after you learn to do the movement with no weight (called a naked get up), the next step is doing it with a shoe balanced on a closed fist.
Once you have proven your control we increase the weight. The heavier the better, as long as your technique remains up to standard.
Sometimes we will even challenge both at the same time. For example HERE is a video of me doing a get up with a 16 kg kettlebell upside down and a cup of water balanced on the bottom of the kettlebell.
To do this exercise yourself you have the same three options listed under the Swing, and for learning yourself I recommend the same book (Simple and Sinister).
What to do with these exercises
Now that you know the two most important exercises with a kettlebell, the next question is how do you use them to reach your fitness goals?
If you know something about designing you own exercise programs then you can build them into your workouts or you can do a program based around these excellent exercises.
The standard program I teach for these exercises is called “Simple and Sinister.” You may notice that the book I recommend for teaching yourself these exercises is called Simple and Sinister as well.
The book is about the program, and the program only consists of two exercises, which are really the only two you need.
The “workout” portion of this program is 100 one arm swings (50 each arm) in 5 minutes and 5 TGUs for a total of 10 minutes.
But unless you are a mutant you can’t just walk into a workout. A proper training session involves a thorough warm up (movement prep), learning (drills to improve your technique), challenge (the “workout”), and recovery at the end of the workout, as well as between workouts.
All things considered the actual training session is somewhere between 30 minutes - 1 hour. How long exactly depends on your goals and your lifestyle. But if you are a busy person, this is an excellent training program to do for 30 minutes 4-5 times a week. If you invest in two or three kettlebells you can even do it easily at home and save yourself the commute to the gym.
For more information, pick up the book and start reading!
There are many tools you can use to get in shape, and the kettlebell is one of the best.
But like any good tool you can only get the most out of it when you use it correctly. And the key to using tools correctly is learning.
You don’t need to learn every kettlebell exercise out there, but if you don’t learn these two you will never realize the full benefits that you can get out of this tool.
If you have any additional questions feel free to shoot me an email at David@magenfitness.com.